Synthetic Biology, What Might It Do?

  • Thread starter BillTre
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Here is an NY Times article on Drew Endy, synthetic biology evangelist.
(I like hearing what's going on the this field from time to time.)

As biological techniques continue to progress more becomes possible from a go out and change it point of view.

There are many opinions about this, as either good or bad.
There are many possible uses and abuses of such new technologies.

The optimism behind synthetic biology assumes that biology can now largely follow the trajectory of computing, where progress was made possible by the continuous improvement in microchips, with performance doubling and price dropping in half every year or two for decades. The underlying technologies for synthetic biology — gene sequencing and DNA synthesis — are on similar trends.

As in computing, biological information is coded in DNA, so it can be programmed — with the goal of redesigning organisms for useful purposes. The aim is to make such programming and production faster, cheaper and more reliable, more an engineering discipline with reusable parts and automation and less an artisanal craft, as biology has been.

I see a couple of different approaches to this:
  • Tweeking changes in an otherwise unchanged "base" organism (such as taking a gene from one organism to replace the homologous one in another organism)
  • Creating complex new functions distinct from those in the "base" organism.

They discuss several possible bases for businesses.
The industry, broadly, is divided into tools makers and product developers. The tool makers include well-established suppliers to synthetic biology companies and others, like the gene sequencers Illumina and Pacific Biosciences, as well as DNA synthesizers, which are younger companies like Twist Bioscience and Codex DNA.

Ginkgo Bioworks, which recently went public, has an all-in-one biofoundry that others can use to make synthetic biology products — much as Amazon supplies cloud computing services to many companies.

There could well be a lot of weird (different from now) things produced in the future.
However, the reason I am now most interested in it is to deal with the effects of climate change. For example:
The technology can also be used to increase biodiversity and protect endangered species. Ocean warming, for example, is destroying coral reefs. But corals in the Red Sea have remarkable heat tolerance. Altering coral genes to mimic the Red Sea varieties could halt the decline and possibly revive coral reefs worldwide.
(However, it may be the symbiotic algae are more sensitive to heat than the corals themselves.)

Global temperature increases are not likely to be sufficiently controlled, due to political limitations, to prevent extensive ecological damage.
It will be important to work to reduce the impacts of climate on our ecosystem.
Ecosystem breakdowns can wipe out huge numbers of species, in the past often including the larger ones (like us).

Not everything will be able to be saved, but key species and the productive bases of ecosystems might be selectively helped along.
Normally, evolution is good at making very efficient organisms that are well tuned to the requirements of their environment.
However, this is achieved over the longer time-spans compared to the current rate of environmental change. If things don't adapt fast enough, they can go extinct and (normally) not be recoverable.

Biological engineering has the potential to make much more rapid changes, though not with the repeated functional testing provided by selection on competing populations. Further refinements might occur later, naturally or not.

I used to argue with some people that molecular engineered lab animals was a new expression of evolution. For example, new animals made to be useful for some research function (like a transparent fish with no pigment) could successfully compete for the niche of a place to be propagated in the lab and last for many generations. (There are Drosophila mutations that have been maintained in labs for more than a hundred years. Strains of domesticated animals are similar cases of evolution.)
Now modified lab animals could be released into the wild, where control would be difficult and unexpected impacts could be large.

The potential for problems from released animals will be an important consideration.
There will inevitably be a conflict between wanting to play it safe and check all possible problems (almost endless in number) and wanting to get something done (WRT climate change, before too much bad happens).

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  • #2
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Can you say "Gain of function?"

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